By RAFIQ MAQBOOL, ASHOK SHARMA and KRUTIKA PATHI
BALASORE, India — Rescuers found no more survivors in the overturned and mangled wreckage of two passenger trains that derailed in eastern India, killing more than 280 people and injuring hundreds in one of the country’s deadliest rail crashes in decades, officials said Saturday.
Chaotic scenes erupted on Friday night as rescuers climbed atop the wrecked trains to break open doors and windows using cutting torches.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the night. Scores of bodies, covered by white sheets, lay on the ground near the tracks while locals and rescuers raced to free the hundreds of people trapped in the rail cars under the twisted metal and broken glass. Army soldiers and air force helicopters joined the effort in Odisha state.
An Associated Press photographer saw bodies still entangled in a badly mangled coach, as rescuers struggled to retrieve them working under the oppressive heat with temperatures reaching up to 35 degree Celsius (96 degrees Fahrenheit).
“By 10 p.m. (on Friday) we were able to rescue the survivors. After that it was about picking up dead bodies,” Sudhanshu Sarangi, director of Odisha state’s fire and emergency department, told The Associated Press. “This is very, very tragic. I have never seen anything like this in my career.”
At least 280 bodies were recovered overnight and into Saturday morning, he said. About 900 people were injured and the cause was under investigation.
The accident occurred at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is focussing on the modernization of the British colonial-era railroad network in India, which has become the world’s most populous country with 1.42 billion. Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, the largest train network under one management in the world.
Modi flew to the crash site and spent half an hour examining the relief effort and talking to rescue officials. He was seen giving instructions on the phone to officials in New Delhi.
He later visited a hospital where he walked around inquiring from doctors about the treatment being given to the injured, and spoke to some of them, moving from bed to bed in a ward.
Modi told reporters that it was a sad moment and he was feeling the pain of those who have suffered in the accident. He said the government would do its utmost to help them and strictly punish those found responsible.
Modi on Saturday was supposed to inaugurate a high-speed train connecting Goa and Mumbai that is equipped with a collision avoidance system. The event was canceled after Friday’s accident. The trains that derailed did not have that system.
Amitabh Sharma, a Railroad Ministry spokesperson, said the rescue work was near completion. Rail authorities will start removing the wreckage to repair the track and resume train operations, he said.
D.B. Shinde, a district administrator, said only five to six bodies remained trapped under a damaged coach and were difficult to recover.
“We have deployed a heavy crane. Once we take them out, the rescue work will be over,” Shinde said.
About 200 of the severely injured people were transferred to specialty hospitals in other cities in Odisha, said P.K. Jena, the state’s top administrative official. Another 200 were discharged after receiving medical care and the rest were being treated in local hospitals, he added. Scores of people also showed up to donate blood.
“The challenge now is identifying the bodies. Wherever the relatives are able to provide evidence, the bodies are handed over after autopsies. If not identified, maybe we have to go for a DNA test and other protocols,” he said.
Ten to 12 coaches of one train derailed, and debris from some of the mangled coaches fell onto a nearby track, according to Sharma. The debris was hit by another passenger train coming from the opposite direction, causing up to three coaches of the second train to also derail, he added.
A third train carrying freight was also involved, the Press Trust of India reported, but there was no immediate confirmation of that from railroad authorities. PTI said some of the derailed passenger coaches hit cars from the freight train.
The rescue operation was slowed because two train cars were pressed together by the impact of the accident, Jena said.
Officials said 1,200 rescuers worked with 115 ambulances, 50 buses and 45 mobile health units through the night. Saturday was declared as a day of mourning in Odisha.
Villagers said they rushed to the site to evacuate people after hearing a loud sound created by the train coaches going off the tracks.
“The local people really went out on a limb to help us. They not only helped in pulling out people, but retrieved our luggage and got us water,” PTI cited Rupam Banerjee, a survivor, as saying.
Passenger Vandana Kaleda said that people were falling on each other as her coach shook violently and veered off the tracks.
“As I stepped out of the washroom, suddenly the train tilted. I lost my balance. ... Everything went topsy turvy. People started falling on each other and I was shocked and could not understand what happened. My mind stopped working,” she said.
Another survivor who did not give his name said he was sleeping when the impact woke him up. He said he saw other passengers with broken limbs and disfigured faces.
The collision involved two trains, the Coromandel Express traveling from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai in Tamil Nadu state and the Howrah Superfast Express traveling from Bengaluru in Karnataka to Howrah, officials said. It was not immediately clear which derailed first.
Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s railway minister, said a high-level probe would be carried out. The political opposition criticized the government and called for Vaishnaw to resign.
In August 1995, two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people in one of the worst train accidents in India.
In 2016, a passenger train slid off the tracks between the cities of Indore and Patna, killing 146 people.
Most train accidents are blamed on human error or outdated signaling equipment.
More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, traveling on 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of track.